Buckley’s Restaurant and Bar, Pappardelle with smoked
mushrooms pairs with a 2013 Podere Ruggeri Corsini Barbera d’Alba,
harbored a bias for the underdog. I prefer Milwaukee to New York City.
I frequent quaint neighborhood joints over expensive flashy ones. And
I squeal at the prospect of an exceptionally curated single-paged wine
list over those that are indexed, tabbed and bound.
popular belief, a lengthy wine list, by virtue of its size, is not
always superior. Ten pages of obscure French wines do not make a wine
list, much less a wine program. So what makes a handful of Milwaukee
restaurants’ wine programs excel, in spite of their single-paged
status? Simply stated, it’s experience.
Buckley’s, Odd Duck and Zarletti are among Milwaukee-area
restaurants that recognize their wine programs can unlock the door to
the experience diners have come to expect. This wisdom stems in part
from the fact that, with the exception of Braise, their wine buyers
double as restaurant owners. "We are in the business of selling
the whole experience of food and wine," says Brian Zarletti of
programs do not lean on expensive wines, old vintages or obscure grape
varietals to achieve that aim. Rather, they have developed organized,
diverse and dynamic wine lists set against a backdrop of
knowledgeable, but approachable service.
wonders seem deceptively simple, but their keepers go to great lengths
to build organized and accurately referenced wine lists. From Allium’s
small but unique selection, to Odd Duck’s self-described "good
mix of ‘safe’ and ‘a little out there,’" to Zarletti’s
predominantly Italian options, all five wine lists are easy to
navigate. I particularly appreciated the strategic use of formatting
to visually bookmark important details such as grape, region and
country at Buckley’s and Braise. Their keen application of wine
knowledge facilitated a quick and productive scan of the lists’
contents, reducing the time my husband had to stare off into space.
A wide range of
wine styles is a telltale sign of a notable wine list, but achieving
this diversity within the confines of 50 wines requires expertise.
Allium’s list, the smallest of the lot, accomplishes this in fewer
than 40 wines, and yet it always resonates with me. Allium owner
Stephen Marks and I share a love of, in his words, "authentic
terroir-driven" European wines. All the more reason I respect him
when I spot a California chardonnay on the list — evidence he knows
wine and the business of wine. "I try to balance what I like with
what is important to have," he says.
the constraints of a predominantly Italian wine list, Zarletti seeks
out "something for everyone at every price point" but
manages to maintain "a very tight list." The guest need not
go further than the first section, sparkling wine, to witness this. I
pounced on a glass of dry, red Lambrusco, an inexpensive food-friendly
wine trend perfect for antipasti. Even so, I would happily share the
Sarocco, arguably the best expression of Moscato d’Asti, with my
mom, or my favorite champagne, Vilmart, at $120, with anyone willing
to pick up the check.
These wine lists
change weekly, if not daily, to offer even greater diversity. Hung
Hoang, wine buyer for Braise, relies on a dynamic list instead of
"deep pockets or a huge cellar." Hoang explains that
although Braise’s list is constantly evolving, it has two
"faces" — lighter, brighter wines for summer and heavier,
more lush wines for winter. In February, I plunged deep into winter
with the dark and brooding Feudi de San Marzano’s Negroamaro, paired
with a cheese board. The mirage of warm and rustic southern Italy
quickly dissipated as we walked back to the car.
Melissa Buchholz recognizes her small-plate menu makes it
"difficult to pair one wine with the whole meal." In
response, Odd Duck offers an impressive rotating list of nearly 30
wines by the glass. On one occasion, my husband and I shared no less
than six glasses of wine and seven small plates. With such an
extensive and varied cast of culinary "characters" at our
fingertips, our dinner was perpetually shape-shifting as dishes and
glasses entered stage left and exited stage right. I particularly
applauded the final act — bacon-wrapped Gouda-stuffed dates with a
jammy Syrah from Washington.
diverse and dynamic wine list is of little value if its contents do
not translate into satisfied guests. The waitstaff bears the
responsibility of bridging the divide between an outstanding wine list
and a memorable wine experience. Buchholz describes her staff’s role
as "guides" through a meal at Odd Duck. Unbeknownst to the
bartender, Buchholz recommended a dry moscato from northern Italy.
Tending a full bar and restaurant, the bartender still took time to
offer me a taste, explaining most guests "expect a sweet moscato,
but this one is dry." I was pleased with his concern, and even
more so, with the wine.
restaurants not only welcome, but also expect their guests to seek out
wine advice. Their wine buyers hunt down lesser-known, value-driven
wines that guests may otherwise never try. In doing so, their lists
teeter between delivering that coveted experience and alienating the
guest. At all five restaurants, a safety net of approachable, yet
informed wine service promotes the former.
Often the wine
buyer, who has tasted every wine on the list, is available for
consultation. Allium’s Marks, who describes his list as "a bit
off the beaten path," encourages his staff to "Ask
Stephen" when they cannot confidently advise on wine. On the
night I dined there, Marks offered insight on the Lebanese Musar wine,
which turned out to be much like Allium: unique, simple and cozy.
found behind the bar, also enjoys sharing his insight. When my friends
requested something "big and jammy," I gave them, to rave
reviews, Alto Moncayo’s Veraton from Spain. I had to, regrettably,
remind them I didn’t make the wine, just ordered it. For the second
bottle, I handed the reigns to Buckley. When he recommended the rarely
jammy Nebbiolo grape, I had my doubts, but Buckley knows his list. Our
table enjoyed the wine and tried something we would have otherwise
restaurants educate and prepare their waitstaff with regular staff
trainings, and access to reference books, binders, lectures, trade
tastings and even field trips. Braise, in particular, understands the
importance of staff training. Initially, I was disappointed to learn
Braise’s wine buyer was not available. However, having sat at the
bar, I engaged several servers about the wine list, and all were
sufficiently prepared to provide sound advice.
pricing on these lists further promotes an approachable wine program.
They all believe a wine list should be drunk, not admired. "I
want people to drink this wine … it’s not a showpiece," Odd
Duck’s Buchholz says. As such, more than half of each list is priced
at $50 or less, and for most, the entire list comes in under $100. All
indicated their most expensive wines are sold at lower margins, in
some cases just above retail, to ensure the wine moves.
restaurateurs understand and appreciate the role wine plays at their
restaurants. A successful wine program will complement the food,
lighten the mood and perhaps even transform a meal into an experience.
"We try not to take wine seriously, but it is a serious thing if
you care about it," Marks says.
Buyer: Stephen Marks
Small but eclectic list featuring affordable European wines
Wines Under $50: 32
Buyer: Britt Buckley
International, Asian-cuisine-friendly list with hidden gems and
Wines Under $50: 35
Buyer: Hung Hoang
Seasonal and high-acid list featuring familiar European regions
Wines Under $50: 35
Buyer: Melissa Buchholz
International list featuring an extensive and dynamic wine by
Wines Under $50: 39
Buyer: Brian Zarletti
Classic Italian list with both traditional players and
Wines Under $50: 34